“Things have started to feel a little … episodic,” acknowledges the commander of the USS Enterprise in his famous captain’s log, three long years into a five-year 23rd century gig.
That line, cheeky and knowing, comes early in “Star Trek Beyond.” It’s the 13th feature film pulled from the hallowed Gene Roddenberry TV series, the Cold War-era phenomenon that believed in ideas and the democratic ideal, as opposed to its cultural bookend, the vastly more influential “Star Wars” universe, which from its inception was driven by merchandise and nostalgia. I generalize, of course, and millions can dwell in both worlds and live a full, happy life. But there it is.
Intergalactic or earthbound, so many franchises fight for our attention these days that it’s easy to forget how satisfying the recent, J.J. Abrams-directed “Star Trek” films starring Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as “Bones” McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty have been. (Also: John Cho as Sulu; Anton Yelchin, who died earlier this year, as Chekov, and Zoe Saldana as Uhura.) The latest, produced by Abrams and directed by “Fast and Furious” alum Justin Lin, isn’t quite up to the 2009 and 2013 movies. But it’s still fun, you still care about the people and the effects manage to look a little more elegant and interesting than the usual blue blasts of generica.
Pegg co-wrote the script with Doug Jung, and while the storyline and the scope of the action is more in line with the pre-digital TV series, the sense of humor’s a pretty fair trade-off. The nemesis this time is a lizard fellow named Krall, played by Idris Elba, which means he has the coolest voice in the universe. Krall’s desperate to regain control of the plot device known as the Abronath, also referred to as “the death machine.” The Enterprise takes a fatal hit from Krall’s swarming, flying spacecraft, and much of the first half of the picture finds Kirk, Spock, et al. stranded and separated on a forbidding, spiky-rocked planet.
The gang reassembles, with the help of fearsome warrior alien Jaylah (Sofia Boutella making with the martial arts whenever she gets enough screen time). The object of Krall’s wrath is a huge, glass-enclosed federation stopover known as Yorkville, which sounds like it’s a mall (meetcha at the Yorkville Mall!) and looks a little like the “Logan’s Run” bubble with more open spaces. On Yorkville, both gravitational forces and the upside-down-and-sideways architecture are inspired by M.C. Escher, which makes for some entertaining combat.
It’s the little things that count in “Star Trek Beyond.” The casual details, two or three seconds at a time, include Sulu meeting up with his boyfriend and their daughter, Spock enjoying an atypically hearty laugh at one point and Kirk’s accumulating air of world-weariness, which tones down the character’s hot-headed qualities. Pine’s a good actor, but it’s a tough assignment: How does any Kirk cope with the role as written, while suggesting, when appropriate, the old William Shatner arrogance?
There’s a moment in “Star Trek Beyond” when Kirk receives congratulations for another job well done. Tipping his hat to his fellow crew members, he says: “It isn’t just me. It never is.” But the look on Pine’s face suggests an unspoken additional line: “But actually, it is just me.”
Director Lin stages a seriously nutty sequence involving multiple Kirks riding multiple motorcycles, which I suspect will prove to be the dividing line for many in the audience. Either you like that bit, or you don’t.
Lin’s movie works best when approached as a relaxed, somewhat playful two-hour expansion of one of the old ’60s episodes. Krall never quite pops as the antagonist Elba so clearly has in him to portray. But if there’s one thing this franchise has taught us, across six decades, it’s this: You can’t always get a Khan when you want one.
Star Trek Beyond
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Idris Elba, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, Zoe Saldana and John Cho
Director: Justin Lin
Rated PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi action and violence)